I have always been intrigued by family traditions. Most families have them, most of them small but significant ones. I remember every Saturday when my grandparents were alive my grandmother, who had an open door policy with relatives like many of her generation, would have ready coffee, tea, cakes, fruit, dried fruit and nuts and other goodies laid out on the table on her massive back porch. She had five brothers and sisters who came most Saturdays, merry people with sharp tongues that weren’t always nice but always observant and always. Sometimes, some of my grandfather’s nieces and nephews would join them, out for a Saturday round of visiting relatives (very common then in Israel). My mother’s cousins and their children would also often pop in and out. Some of them came every Saturday and some once in a while so when we walked into my grandmother’s house, it was always a surprise to see who was there. It was a crazy, noisy time, the TV on for the kids in one room, people running around, smokers coveted on the bedroom balcony or the front porch out of the way, people milling around my grandmother’s yard picking oranges, lemons, mangos, avocados and stealing the special fragrant roses from her front yard when they were blooming. I would come home with a headache but of course when my grandparents stopped doing this in their nineties, I missed those Saturday traditions.
But not all family traditions bring back happy memories. Some place heavy burdens on future generations. Family expectations could sometimes bind children and grandchildren in ways that keep them from moving forward or finding their own peace of mind.
I recently saw a quirky little film from 1970 called Something for Everyone. This dark comedy focused on a charming but devious young man, Konrad Ludwig (Michael York) who worms his way as a domestic servant into the castle of the Austrian countess Herthe von Ornstein (the fabulous Angela Lansbury) in order to maneuver a rebirth of the pre-World War II aristocratic lifestyle. The criminal plot didn’t interest me as much as the character of the Countess. The war and its aftermath has reduced the once lavish lifestyle of this noblewoman to a barely sustainable isolated existence where every penny has to be watched (she laments at one point about how she has been reduced to no wild strawberries at breakfast because she can no longer afford them). The Countess lives in the past when the aristocracy ruled Austria, giving lavish parties and outings, “opening up” their houses to guests, and snubbing Nazis because they were “boring”. She seems resigned to accepting the death of her traditions until Konrad stirs things up again. He convinces her to give one of her lavish garden parties especially for the Pleschke family, wealthy but rather unrefined people with aristocratic ambitions. He thinks if she does this, it might pave the way for the Countess’ phlegmatic son Helmuth (Anthony Higgins) to marry their sexy daughter Anneliese (Heidelinde Weis) and bring the necessary finances into the family so that they can revive their traditions. The Countess is at first appalled at the idea of united her distinguished family with such vulgar people. But the party proves to be a revelation for her, making her realize that without money, the lifestyle on which her entire existence hinges can never be again. She instructs Konrad to make the union between Anneliese and Helmuth happen, never mind what either of them feel about it or whatever it takes.
A similar desperation to hang on to family traditions whatever the cost appears in Thomas Mann’s historical family saga Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, published in 1900. The story tells of the Buddenbrooks, a wealthy family whose success and status did not come from the aristocracy but from their leading role in the business community in the 19th century of a small industrial town in Northern Germany. They have rigid family traditions established from the 17th century that include very specific roles for each of its members with no room for deviations. These traditions fall on the current generation of Buddenbrook children – Thomas, the eldest son, Christian, the second and youngest son, and Antonie, or, Tony, the eldest daughter. The dictates of Buddenbrook tradition are very clear – Thomas is to take over the family business started by his great-grandfather; Christian, as the second son, is to make good in business either by working for his brother or taking money specifically set aside for him to start his own; Tony, as the daughter, to unite the Buddenbrook family with an equally wealthy and socially prominent one and go into society to maintain the family honor and dignity.
However, as Mann shows, family traditions are not always right for the particular people who carry them out. In her efforts to carry out her role, Tony marries a man who outwardly has all the necessary qualifications to unite with a Buddenbrook and indeed, her father pushes her into the marriage even though Tony is less than enthusiastic about the bridegroom. Later, the man reveals himself to have deceived the family and Tony is forced to divorce him (a rarity for the 19th century, especially in her class). This divorce brings disgrace to her and her family, so much so that she is willing to marry someone she considers beneath her just to avoid the social stigma attached to divorced women at that time. Unfortunately, that marriage proves a dud as well and she ends up giving over the responsibility of maintaining the family’s social honor to her daughter Erika, whose marriage restores her place in the family traditions:
“It was she [Tony] who would once again leave the roomy but very pious home of her parents and no longer be merely a divorced woman; it was she who would once more be able to lift her head high and begin a new life that would act as a focus of attention and further the prestige of the family.” (Mann, p. 437)
Christian, the second and youngest son, has an artistic talent for acting and mimicry but his position in the family makes it impossible for him to even consider a career on the stage. So he becomes, like many younger sons of wealthy families, a kind of rolling stone. He does make attempts to fulfill his destiny in every way possible – first, by working under his brother at the family business, then by using money set aside for him in his father’s will to start his own, and finally even taking a position at the insurance company owned by Erika’s husband. But he fails in all of these because the rigid family expectations do not fit his personality.
Even Thomas, the eldest, eventually gets weighed down by the role set for him since birth. Outwardly, Thomas fulfills all the promises. He takes over his father’s business upon his death and makes it even more prosperous. He marries well and has a big house and a son to carry on the family name. He is even elected senator of his town. And yet, no one more than he is aware that he is not happy. On the one hundredth birthday of the Buddenbrook family business, in the midst of all the congratulations and celebrations in which the whole town participates, Thomas can’t help but feel a sense of failure and waste:
“Several times he attempted to pull himself together, to put on a cheerful expression, and to tell himself that this was a beautiful day, a day that should only elevate his mood and fill him with joy. But … the sound of the instruments, the confusion of voices, and the sight of all these people jangled on his nerves and merged with memories of the past and his father, calling up a faint wave of emotion, the predominant feeling was a sense that the whole affair was absurd and embarrassing—second-rate music distorted by bad acoustics, banal people engaging in banal conversation about stock prices and banquets.” (Mann, p. 481)
The idea of family traditions figures heavily in my Waxwood series. There are some binding expectations that Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch of the family, has for her children. For Jake, it’s to take up his role as family patriarch after his grandfather dies. For Vivian, it’s to marry well and produce heirs. These burdens cause both of them to stagnate, stifling their mental and psychological growth. They end up as child-adults and they must set out to discover their own lives and their value outside of these family traditions.
Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family. First Vintage International Edition, July 1994. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (first published 1900). Kindle digital file.